#BreastCancerFeminist Investigation: Kyocera Santoku Knife

A breast cancer commemorative Kyocera Santoku ceramic knife at my local grocery store. Photo taken by author.
About a month ago, my fiancé Seth and I were shopping at our local grocery store. We were in mid-conversation just exiting the produce aisle when all of a sudden I stopped in my tracks. Among the cutlery section stood out this pink-handled Kyocera Santoku ceramic knife. Needless to say, my pinkdar had gone off. This wasn’t the first time I saw a pink-branded product in the name of breast cancer at the grocery store. Usually the pink products on the shelves will include some sort of label that indicates the charity that money from each purchase is going to. However, what struck me about this Kyocera knife was that there was no charitable organization listed on the packaging. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything listed at all. 

If you look at the picture for this week’s post, you’ll see some small print writing on the left-hand side. That writing says the following: 

Kyocera’ ceramic kitchen utensils help to provide a rich and enjoyable lifestyle. By contributing to the Pink Ribbon campaign, Kyocera supports happy families, and hopes for all women to live long, healthy lives.

So as I’m reading this in the grocery aisle, I can’t help but start laughing. Seth, who’s realized at this point that I’ve totally trailed away from our original conversation, comes up to me and asks what I’m looking at. I show him the knife, point to the packaging and ask him, “What’s this, a ‘Pink Ribbon’ campaign? Is this for real? There’s not even a trademark! And who are they donating the money to like really what is this?” Something smelt fishy about the knife, so I decided when I got home later that day I would investigate. 

My investigation about this product was intended to be relatively straight-forward. All I wanted to answer was the following questions: 

  1. What charitable organization(s) is receiving donations from this purchase?
  2. How much money from this purchase is going towards a charitable organization(s)?

Call me an idealist, but I really don’t think these questions should be that mind-blowing to answer. These straight-forward questions serve as nothing more than a starting point for a consumer to understand the basis of a supposedly socially-conscious corporate partnership. However, I would soon find out that the answers to these questions are not as clear as I was hoping they would be. 

So as any top-of-the-line investigator should do, first and foremost I went to the Google machine! Upon a simple search, it’s apparent that somewhere around 10-15 years ago, Kyocera struck up a partnership with, you guessed it, Susan G. Komen, known at the time as Susan G. Komen for the Cure. One of the first things I found was a press release published in 2011 with the headline Kyocera Donates $375,000 To Help Fight Breast Cancer. The press release goes on to state, “For each knife sold, $5.00 is donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure®.” After reading that, I almost stopped there, thinking to myself, “OK Grace, you’re being kind of a judgmental asshole, you answered both of your damn questions through reading one press release.” But for whatever reason, I still had a shred of doubt. Maybe it’s because when it comes to research I’m extremely stubborn. Maybe it’s because I always like to deeply understand complex questions I have about the world. Maybe I was just kind of bored that day. Whatever the reason, I decided to keep digging. 

For the life of me, I couldn’t find anything current on the Kyocera website about their pink-handled Santoku ceramic knife, which I found a bit odd. I couldn’t find anything online that verified this partnership after around 2013. I even pain-stakingly searched through all of their press releases from 2015 through 2017.

 I then began to ask myself, is this partnership still a thing? And if I were to buy this knife right now, would the money even go to Komen? After all, Komen did take a major beating from their corporate sponsors after the Planned Parenthood funding scandal in 2012. So I told myself, maybe Kyocera was one of the companies that backed away. I still don’t really have an answer for this, I can only speculate. 

When I exhausted the Kyocera website and other third-party websites, I came to the conclusion that it takes two to tango. That being said, I started digging on the Susan G. Komen website. I always try to give Komen credit where it’s due, and I will say that they do a good job of publicly listing all of their corporate partnerships. I began a cursory search on their website and I couldn’t find anything that indicated there’s an active partnership that Komen has with Kyocera for the year 2017. I started looking into their annual corporate reports between the years 2013-2016 and I couldn’t find Kyocera listed anywhere. Desperate, I literally typed ‘Kyocera’ into the search bar on the Komen website, and no results appeared. To fact check my own sanity, I searched other basic queries on that search bar and I yielded some results, so it’s not like the search bar is faulty. So what the devil is going on here? 

A few days later, during my lunch break I called the Susan G. Komen general phone number and was transferred to what I believe is their donations hotline. I spoke to a representative and I explained to her that I had seen this knife at my local grocery store and heard that the company, Kyocera, had a partnership with the Susan G. Komen Foundation. I told her that I was calling just to verify that the partnership was real before I purchase the product. I remember pacing back and forth under the awning of my office building as she kept asking me to repeat the name of the company over the phone, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that for me?” Yeah, I got that a few times. She asked me for my email and told me that she’d get back to me by that afternoon. That email never came. 

After reaching a partial dead end there, I decided the next day to call Kyocera’s customer service hotline. I spoke to a customer service representative and gave her the same schpeal that I gave to Komen. She told me in a pretty level-headed tone to email their customer service department.  That evening, I sent them an email, and this is what it said: 

Hello, 

This weekend when I was shopping at my local supermarket, I saw for sale a Kyocera limited edition breast cancer awareness knife benefitting Susan G Komen. I was potentially interested in buying it, however when I looked on your website, I wasn’t able to see if Kyocera still has an active partnership with Susan G Komen. If I buy that knife now, will money still be donated to Komen? And how much money from each knife purchase is donated to Komen?

Please let me know, thank you. 

Grace Slawski 

I was told over the phone that it would take about one business day to receive a reply from customer service. So in the best way I knew how, I patiently waited, and spent another stupid few hours just trying to dig deeper into this partnership. During that search, I stumbled upon a report issued by the Kyocera Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department back in 2006, and in it they talk about the origins of the alleged Pink Ribbon Campaign. I was pretty stoked, and I said to myself “Yes finally, so what the f*ck is this thing?” And well, surprise surprise, I didn’t get much of an answer. 

This is what their report says about the Pink Ribbon Campaign, “The Pink Ribbon Campaign is an an awareness campaign to eradicate breast cancer. The symbol originates from the pink ribbons created by one family that lost a loved one to breast cancer, symbolizing their hope for a cure for this disease.” 

After searching extensively online, that blurb is the best explanation I can find for their Pink Ribbon Campaign. There’s no trademark attributed to it from what I can see. And that name, the Pink Ribbon Campaign, that’s so generic. I could start a Pink Ribbon Campaign from my freaking living room. The pink ribbon itself isn’t trademarked, which makes marketing a campaign with that generic of a name even that much easier to pull off. In short, the Pink Ribbon Campaign that’s branded on their pink-handled Santoku ceramic knife seems well, pretty sketch if you ask me.

So another business day comes and goes and then the following day, while I’m sitting down for a quick lunch at my desk, I check my email and see that I have a response from Kyocera. To paraphrase, the Regional Sales Manager that replied to my inquiry basically told me the following. Kyocera had held an exclusive partnership with Komen for around 12 years. To date, they’re expanding the pool of organizations that are receiving charitable donations. The manager however was not able to disclose any of the organizations themselves. The email said that they’re trying to expand the amount of people that can benefit from the donations. That’s basically it. The email ends with the manager saying, “I hope I have answered your question.” I sit slowly chewing on my food before I begin to process the fact that no, not only did she not answer my question, she just raised further questions!

In response, I sent her the following reply: 

Hi, 

Thanks for your response. Your email does raise some more questions for me however that, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to address with you. 

My biggest question for you is why can’t Kyocera disclose the organizations that the money is being donated to? I don’t understand why Kyocera cannot be transparent about which organization(s) are receiving donations from my purchase.  

Another question I have for you is about the actual product itself. If the money is no longer being donated exclusively to Susan G. Komen, and it’s being donated to cancer research overall, then why is the knife handle still pink and labeled as part of the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer?

Thank you, 

Grace Slawski 

That email was sent on June 15th. It’s currently July 13th and I still haven’t heard a response. I even sent a follow-up email to the manager’s direct email this past Monday, but alas I haven’t heard anything. It just makes me wonder, what do they have to hide?

Later that afternoon on June 15th, I was shooting the shit with one of my co-workers. It was nearing the end of the day on a Friday, so my feet were lazily sprawled on his endearingly fugly green couch next to his desk as I explained this weird story to him. He started a Google search of his own (hooray for the Google machine!) and he also came across the Corporate Social Responsiblity (CSR) department page. We started perusing around the site, and on the surface we were able to find a lot of information on the company’s dedication to social responsibility, their various partnerships, etc. But the website is designed as such that what you see is basically what you get. When we tried looking more into their breast cancer repeated activities, there wasn’t much other than what I’ve already said in this post. And when we tried to find a point of contact, the task seemed nearly impossible. We were able to determine that their US corporate office is in San Diego, and we found a phone number for the Director of Corporate Communications and Education at Kyocera International, Jay Scovie. Hopeful, I’ve tried calling him twice now, I even left him a voicemail, to no avail. 

Everything about this partnership just seems locked away with a key. Someone out there knows the answers to my questions, but here I am, toiling away with emails and phone calls that go nowhere. I end up circling with little reassurance and only more questions. And this is me, a girl with some weird interest in this subject. But think about the average consumer who thinks that because the product they see at the store is pink, it must be good, that it must be benefitting a breast cancer organization. They think that their purchase is helping someone out there that’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. But is it really? They’ll almost certainly not go through the lengths that I have to answer that question. 

I hope this post, if nothing else, serves as a reminder to all of you that not all that glitters is gold, or pink, or whatever. Perhaps Kyocera is a company that’s legitimately trying to do social good, just like other companies that brand their products as pink. But they could also be scamming you as a consumer for money, which other companies have definitely done with pink-branded products. So if you have any shred of doubt, do some homework, be diligent about where your money goes. Or, feel free send me a tip on Instagram @graceslawskiwrites or via email at graceslawskiwriting@gmail.com 😉 Only have the autonomy to choose where and how to spend our money, so use that autonomy wisely, and remember that the next time you see a pink-product on your shopping trip.

And on that note, PS, in case you were wondering, I never bought that knife myself. I left it on the shelf at my grocery store. 
  

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